Toward Unconscious Competence?

Hi. Barb here, still in sunny Key West. (Don’t hate me.)

I’m in the muddle in the middle of the first draft of my next Maine Clambake Mystery, Fogged Inn. And my general muddle at this point has me pondering the notion of Unconscious Competence.

We’ve all seen this model for mastering a skill, right?


The theory was developed at the Gordon Training International in the 1970s, but it’s become pretty much a part of everyday culture since.

Unconscious Incompetence: The idea is before you begin to acquire a skill, you don’t know anything about it, including what you don’t know. All of us have met fiction “writers” at this stage of development. Usually they are armchair authors who do not actually write, but whose reaction to most things they read is, “I could do way better than this.”

Conscious Incompetence: But once you start writing fiction, you realize, “Man, this is hard.” I mean really hard, because fiction-writing includes so many layers and the use of many, many skills. There are story-telling skills: structure, timelines, logic (repeat for plot and every subplot). There are character development skills: background, personality, emotion, motivation, arc (repeat for just about every named character). There are the the narrative skills: developing theme, pacing, symbolism. And there are the prose skills, choosing the words needed to convey all of the above, (repeat for every chapter, scene, paragraph, sentence and word). It’s a lot to keep track of.

Conscious Competence: So, the hapless writer decides to acquire some skills. Whether he takes classes, or reads how-to books, or analyzes the books of his betters, or seeks out good critiquers and editors, or most likely all of the above, becoming a conscious competent certainly involves writing, writing, writing. And writing a lot of crap that eventually gets better.

Unconscious Competence: Unconscious competence comes when you’ve so internalized a skill, you can do it without thinking. Like riding a bike or driving or, well, fill in your own blank. Everyone has skills like this.

But lately I’ve begun to wonder, “Do writers ever reach the level of Unconscious Competence?” Most writers I know, even the best ones, are piles of quivering self-doubt. And that’s on a good day. They all wonder when they start a new book, Will this be the time it doesn’t work? When they are in the muddle in the middle, they wonder, Is this the time it will be unfixable? And sometimes, even for really experienced writers, it is that time, and they have to throw it all out and start over.

I myself have been hanging out at the junction of Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence for years. I’m a little weary of it, to tell the truth.

I have hope. There are a few little aspects of the job I have knocked and feel confident about. But the bulk of it…oy.

Sometimes I think Unconscious Competence shouldn’t be a goal in the arts–because there lies formula, repetition, the worst kind of hackery. But then I watch fine artists and musicians and others whose confidence in their baseline skills gives them the ability to soar.

And I return to wanting, hoping, practicing and honing..

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at
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12 Responses to Toward Unconscious Competence?

  1. Boy does this hit home! I’m currently at the “how did I ever think I could write a novel?” stage of what will eventually be my 54th published book. No, it never gets any easier. On the bright side, at some point in the process, that Unconscious Competence does (finally!) kick in and, somehow, the pieces all seem to fall into place. Trying to analyze how this happens so the process will go more smoothly the next time does no good. To quote “Shakespeare in Love,” “It’s a mystery.”

  2. David Edgar Cournoyer says:

    I enjoyed this reminder of the journey to mastery. I don’t think the process is a one way trip, but more like a favorite place you visit repeatedly, gaining a little familiarity with each cycle and maybe forgetting and rediscovering. Here on the CT coast I am about to rediscover the value of snow removal equipment as we sit out a blizzard.

  3. Edith says:

    OMG, Katilyn – really? I’m with Barb on her response. And Barb, I think I’ve been hanging around the same street corner as you.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Laughing, Edith. Every once and awhile, I slip back into Unconscious Incompetence. I wonder if that’s what’s meant by “going back to square one.”

  4. sandy says:

    That was wonderful…or sometimes not….depending. But I copied it to send to friends who keep asking when they can buy the “book.” (That’s not been published yet.) Because as a newbe this really describes the first stages. Hits it dead on. And the later stages? More like quicksand: sometimes on top, sometimes…not. Thanks soooo much. sandy

  5. Just to make matters worse, as I get older I find unconscious competence slipperier than ever. Sometimes all the skills and layers pour out of my fingertips, sometimes I have to coax them, and sometimes I think, “What are these stubby things at the end of my arms?”

  6. Vaughn Hardacker says:

    I haven’t seen this in years. It’s a variation of the JoHari window, named for the two psychologists who developed it (don’t laugh)–Joe and Harry. They used it as a method of opening communications between a manager and his or her subordinates. The windows were: I know me; You know me. I know me; you don’t know me. I don’t know me; you know me. I don’t know me; you don’t know me. A moderator (supposedly trained) was in charge and the subordinates were allowed to ask any question they wanted (certain topics were off limits, such as the manager’s love life). The manager was to give as honest an answer as they could to each question. The object of the exercise was to open the 4 windows so that the manager learned how his or her subordinates saw them, not as how they saw themselves. I went through it a couple of times–it could be very intense and eye opening if done correctly. I would never have thought about using it as a writing tool. But think of the areas it would open up if we did one for each of our major characters! We would know how they would react under just about any circumstance before we wrote the scene!

  7. karla says:

    This chart is useful. Thank you.

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